The Hole Truth

This Foodie Friday, let’s delve into the world of food mysteries.  I hadn’t really noticed but apparently the holes in swiss cheese have been shrinking and no one quite knew why.  A cynical commentator (who me?) might speculate that the opposite ought to be true, as margins rise when you’re selling empty space.  Be that as it may, it was really a problem and scientists did some investigating.  The answer is instructive for anyone in business.

You know that cheese is made by the interplay of bacteria and milk.  The bacteria is added and the differences in the milk (sheep, cow, goat, etc.) and the strain of bacteria are what make different cheeses.  Swiss cheese is cow’s milk and three unpronounceable strains of bacteria, none of which had been changed;  yet over the last hundred years, and very much over the last fifteen, the holes have been shrinking.  Why?

Turns out it had to do with improved cleanliness.  Better sanitation resulted in a safer product but also removed microscopic bits of hay from the milk.  Those hay bits were critical in the formation of the holes.  That solves our mystery but also raises the business point.

We’re all familiar with the law of unintended consequences but how many of us take the time with our team to think through the effects that law might bring with every new action?  Product changes, a new marketing plan, or any other change has the potential to bring about changes that aren’t readily foreseen unless we spend the extra time to think about them.  It’s nice to tie executive compensation to our stock price but maybe that has the unintended consequence of focusing on the short-term or good financial results at the expense of better customer service.  Maybe we cut the price to get a deal but then realize we’re losing money.  Maybe we reduce quality to save on costs and watch as a competitor steals share.

Making the milk cleaner was a great idea – who wants customers getting sick and dying?  The unintended consequence was a big change to one of the product’s signature features.  After all, without the holes, Swiss Cheese is just Emmental and Appenzell.  That mystery took 100 years to solve – hopefully the mysteries inherent in your business won’t take that long.

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